Saturday, 16 November 2019

The Heather Sea

I am writing a real book (don't get too excited - it's an academic monograph) and it's getting close to the deadline. This means I am working on it almost constantly. At the end of each day I am creatively spent. This has made blogging ideas slow to come if at all, and has rendered my desire to blog almost nonexistent.

The best way to remedy this is probably not to post a campaign-setting idea, which people don't usually read or comment on, on a Saturday when nobody reads blogs in the first place. But here goes.

While out walking last week in the hills I struck off the beaten trails and headed out across a wide expanse of heather moorland on something of a wild goose chase in search of what my ordnance survey map suggested were some caves. This led me across this kind of landscape (excuse the use of a naff stock photo):

It felt not unlike wading across a very wide pond interspersed with stepping stones of granite. You basically pick your way from hunk of rock to hunk of rock (which retreating glaciers deposited long ago) by striding uncertainly amidst thick, bouncy, thigh-deep fragrant heather. The heather often bears your weight, but also has a tendency to treacherously give way so that your foot plunges down into sodden mud underneath. It's a pain in the arse to cross, but also a good work out. 

It also made me imagine what that landscape would be like if it was blown up to a scale 100 or 1000 times bigger than it really is. Each hunk of granite would not be merely a convenient place for somebody to stand for a moment to get their bearings, but big enough for buildings, even towns, even cities, to be built on (or inside). The heather sea would be a deep, dark, impenetrable mega-forest which the rock-dwellers would dread to cross, and which would they would never enter except as outlaws or madmen. Passage from rock to rock might be done through trained birds or other fliers, or possibly by enlisting giants or other gargantuan beasts capable of walking across the ocean of vegetation in between. 

Maybe different types of heather would bloom in different colours, and their fragrant pollen washing over the landscape would create different magical effects. Maybe the only time any rock-dweller would venture into that landscape would be to try to harvest that pollen. Maybe they would raise giant bees or other insects to harvest it for them, and to make use of the honey.

And maybe those big hunks of granite would contain mineral deposits. And maybe dwarves and derro and other subterranean beings would burrow up from the underdark so as to mine the giant rocks from underneath. Maybe the rock-dwellers would find themselves living atop networks of burrows filled with wonders to explore.

Maybe that would be a fun campaign setting to run a game in.

Tuesday, 5 November 2019

Mud and Floods

I spent all weekend hiking in the countryside. This being England, and this being November, this meant rain and mud. Lots of it. There is a certain point in the English autumn at which there is almost daily rain. The earth gets completely saturated, but the temperature no longer gets much higher than 6 or 7 degrees and the standing water does not evaporate. This turns the entire country outside of towns and cities into a gigantic bog of mud and swamp-like quasi-lakes of brown water. 

It makes you realise why there was a campaign season in the good old days. Sure, you had to get the harvest in and armies were extremely hard to supply between October and March. But getting from place to place on foot is also just a gigantic pain in the arse. Better to just stay at home and wait for spring.

I did some hikes that I have done before and worked out that I was on average travelling at half my usual pace just because I was constantly having to pick my way around impromptu bodies of water where once there was grass. This also meant that I spent most of my time looking at the ground rather than the world around me, because I was more or less constantly picking my way from one patch of firm ground to another - like stepping stones.

We tend to think about the weather and terrain as basically being a matter of movement rates when we remember them at all. Just as relevant, if not more so, is I think the surprise roll. When the weather is bad you have to concentrate. If there had been a gang of goblins out there on the hunt, I would have been a sitting duck. That's not even to mention footprints and the ease of tracking.

Two rule suggestions, then:

1) During heavy rain, in random encounters intelligent creatures (including PCs) are automatically surprised unless they have prepared for rain or their nature suggests otherwise (Trolls, for instance, are unlikely to be concerned by mud)
2) Tracking during heavy rain and the following day is automatically successful 

Friday, 1 November 2019

Nicobobinise Your Game: Interpreting Dreams and Omens

One of my favourite techniques for giving players a little bit of narrative control and a stake in setting creation without getting all storygamerish about it is giving them opportunities to describe their PCs' dreams and hallucinations. 

If the PCs get the opportunity to take a hallucinogen or are put in that state magically, go on a spirit journey, or the like, I will often ask them: what does your character see? Or, alternatively, I will sketch out a scene ("You see yourself on the back of a flying whale" or whatever) and ask them to add some details ("Where does the whale go?"). 

They will without fail come up with something that you:
a) Would never have thought of yourself;
b) Can incorporate into the game somehow, turning the hallucination into a "premonition" of some kind.

You have to do this sparingly, and in a subtle, non-obvious way. It's no good being literal about things - you need to get dream-logical. The best approach is opportunistic: you might never use the "whale flying to the stars" motif even metaphorically, but you never know when something star or deep-sea related will come up, and when it does...

I have been reading Arrian's Anabasis lately. It is fascinating how much ancient people relied on what they thought were the correct interpretations of goings-on in the natural world. For example:

[W]hen Alexander was still besieging Halicarnassus and was taking a midday rest, a swallow had flitted about over his head chirping loudly and settled here and there on his bed giving voice in a more than usually insistent way. Alexander was too exhausted to wake up, but the sound bothered him in his sleep and he brushed the swallow away with a light sweep of his hand. Far from flying off at his touch, the bird perched right on Alexander's head and kept going until he was completely awake. Alexander took this business of the swallow seriously and recounted it to Aristander of Telmissus, a seer. Aristander told him that it signified a plot by one of his friends, and meant also that the plot would come to light, as the swallow is a domestic bird, friendly to man, and the most talkative of all birds.

I love this kind of thing, because it is so immersive in a strange and beautiful and foreign way of conceiving of the world. How to use it in a game is difficult, but I wonder whether one method might be something like:

-There is a table of random natural events that the DM consults very occasionally
-When he does so, an event like the sparrow/nap incident takes place
-The player gives an interpretation of what has happened and what it means
-The DM writes down an interpretation of what has happened and what it means (keeping it secret from the players)
-A coin is tossed to determine which is the correct interpretation BUT the DM does not reveal the result
-Play continues: it could be that the player's interpretation of the swallow/nap incident is correct, or it could be the DM's; the players might act on the assumption that they are right, or wrong...and sooner or later they'll find out

You could. of course, do something similar with the interpretation of dreams: every so often you could roll on a Random Dream Table and ask for the players' interpretations accordingly, following a similar pattern to the above.

Wednesday, 30 October 2019

Incentives Matter

The other day I listened to an RPG-related podcast in which a story gamer talked about playing an old school game. She was broadly positive, but said that she was dissatisfied with the way in which combat worked - if a PC was out of action or killed, it would mean that the player would have nothing to do, for the rest of the fight at least. This was seen as bad because, I gather, it would make that player feel left out or bored.

I am trying my best these days not to be judgmental and dismissive, which are always my driving instincts, but I do sometimes wonder where the infantilisation of adults will end. Even young children understand the concept that incentives matter - if there is a consequence to playing unintelligently, and the consequence is that you can't "play", then there is a good reason to play intelligently instead. The result is a better experience for everybody.

Let me put that a different way: if you remove the consequences of bad play in order to satisfy any given individual player and stop them feeling left out, you make things worse for the group, because you encourage the players not to take things seriously.

Death and incapacitation are important because they encourage thoughtful engagement with the game. If those threats feel real, players understand that what happens actually matters. This raises the bar for everybody - the other players, who feed off each other's energy, and the DM, who has gone to the trouble of starting up and planning a campaign that he or she wants them to engage with.

[EDIT: Apparently because it's not clear, I am not talking about the DM doing this in an authoritarian or "yah boo sucks" sort of way, and nor am I talking about character death meaning having no further contribution to the session. I am talking about the natural incentives which will arise when players know that getting incapacitated is going to mean having to sit and watch for 5 minutes or so, and that character death is going to mean having to roll up a new one and wait until there's an opportunity to be reintroduced to the game - i.e. a little while later in the same session.]

Tuesday, 29 October 2019

The Greatest OSR Blog Posts Known to Man

Attempting to list the greatest OSR blog posts ever is a fool's errand of the highest order. I have forgotten 99.9% of the posts I have ever read, especially those from the early days. BUT LET'S DO IT ANYWAY.

Post yours in the comments. The ones I can think of off the top of my head are: - Not even anything to do with RPGs, let alone D&D, and let alone the OSR, but probably the blog post I have enjoyed reading most of all in the last 10 years. - Like the last Ichthyosaur in the ocean, this is a recent reminder of the magnificent beasts which once roamed the Blogosphere Sea but which long ago diminished and went into the West...or something., and - A series of three posts which set out the case for OD&D from the get-go and were instrumental in hooking me back into all of this nonsense. - Just good solid advice on sandbox building from the days when the basic principles of OSR play were still being properly elucidated; it seems like something everybody nowadays would take for granted, but this stuff was important, dammit., and - More really useful technical advice, again from the days when this sort of thing was necessary in establishing the rudiments of OSR campaign design. - One of Delta's truly magnificent deep dives, which might genuinely change how you see a fundamental element of the game. - It still makes me smile. - The best blog post written about "RPG theory". And it was nearly 14 years ago. - You can pretty much make a campaign setting just by answering these questions and use it for years and years.

I have merely scratched the surface. What else can you remember?

Wednesday, 23 October 2019

Once You Label Me You Negate Me - About the OSR, DIY D&D, Sword Dream, and the Rest

What's your label?

I was never a big fan of "OSR". I am not old school (I never played OD&D when it first came out, for the very good reason that I was not yet born); I hate the phrase "old school" to begin with, whatever the context (self-congratulatory stick-in-the-mudism); and the word "renaissance" is pompous and silly. Speaking strictly objectively, I always thought "DIY D&D" made a lot more sense: what I do, after all, is play D&D and make stuff for it myself rather than buy what others produce.

And I am also not by nature a joiner to begin with. Let's be clear about this: I am proud, vain, and self-motivating, and I don't get why some people seem to feel an intense need to be part of social movements or support networks. For some people, it appears to be important to feel like an insider - whether it's through energetically participating in online "communities", retweeting the latest hashtag, or being on top of the latest boxed-set everybody's talking about. I am basically the opposite of that. This is not a criticism of those people, because I'm sure that impulse comes from a nice place. It is  just the reflections of a man who is probably now at the threshold of middle-age, and is becoming able to look at his own settled personality with something approaching objectivity.

In short, I like people, I have lots of friends and a loving family, and I think those who comment on this blog are generally fabulous (I will refrain from naming the exceptions). But I have a very low level of tolerance for anything that seems to me even remotely like it might be a bandwagon. This is almost pathological: if people like something, I tend to go out of my way to hate it. Long-term readers of the blog may be familiar with this tendency of mine. I swear I'll get around to reading Harry Potter one day.

With all of that said, what the OSR has going for it is that is not, as others have rightly pointed out, a community. Attempts to turn it into one have pretty much universally been obnoxious, exclusionary in one direction or other, politicised, and dominated by superficially charismatic...I am trying to think of the right term here...I'll be polite and say "fevered egos". The OSR is a scene or, better, a genre - a style of play. It is at its heart politically and socially empty: really, it's just a loose set of principles about what play looks like. Not principles about who gets to play. Not principles about what the content should or should not be. Not principles about which type of designer gets supported and which doesn't. Not principles about who is a good person and who is a bad one. Principles about what happens at the table, and in preparation for it.

Where the OSR has been led astray in the past, and where I am sure it will continue to be led astray in the future, is when people have become sidetracked from just expounding on the relevant principles and making games along the guidelines which those principles provide. In other words, the whole thing has become corrupted when people have started trying to put up barriers of any kind, to create in-groups and out-groups, or to achieve certain ends beyond promoting the principles in question.

Which is all a very roundabout way of saying, I will not piss all over any attempt to create a community if that's what the members of said community wish to do. But there is nothing wrong with "the OSR" beyond it being a bit of a silly name, if one concentrates on the fact that it is a style of play and nothing more than that.

Monday, 21 October 2019

Let's Discover: The Nicobobinus Gambit

"This is the story of the most extraordinary child who ever stuck his tongue out at the Prime Minister. His name was Nicobobinus. He lived a long time ago, in a city called Venice, and he could do anything.
"Of course, not everyone knew he could do anything. In fact, only his best friend, Rosie, knew, and nobody took any notice of anything Rosie said, because she was always having wild ideas anyway.
"One day, for example, Rosie said to Nicobobinus, 'Let's pull up every weed on your doorstep.'
"'Let's not,' said Nicobobinus (which is what Rosie thought he would say).
"'In that case,' replied Rosie, 'Let's discover the Land of Dragons!'
"'Don't be daft,' said Nicobobinus, 'How can we do that?'
"'Because you can do anything,' said Rosie."
I recently came across a copy of Nicobobinus in a second-hand book shop and snatched it up. It was a vague memory from my childhood, which I probably read when I was about 8 or 9 years old. But something of it had always stuck with me - nothing much more than an evocative mood, really, most likely thanks to Michael Foreman's wonderful illustrations (which were always a winning combination with Terry Jones - see this old post for more on this), but one powerful enough to have never quite been forgotten.

The concept of somebody who can "do anything" deliberately going to discover a place which does not exist, and in doing so thereby calling it into existence, is fairy tale logic at its finest. But something like this also happens a lot in games, whether by design or otherwise. No, one doesn't tend to begin a campaign with the PCs announcing they want to discover a place one of them has plucked from thin air. (Although you certainly could.) But one does tend as the DM to create people, places and things on the fly as the players ask questions either in- or out-of-character. Hence:

Player: "I ask NPC X where he's from."
DM [who has just invented NPC X because the situation has called for it, perhaps because the players are in a tavern and asked something like "Who is sitting next to us?" and has given his background no thought]: "Er, he says he's from the land behind the mountain."
Player: "Ooh, I wonder what that's like..."

And suddenly there's a land behind the mountain where there was none before. One which the PCs might well end up visiting and which the DM is going to have to detail when all it was originally was a phrase which popped into his head in the heat of the moment.

I intend to call this form of knock-on creation the Nicobobinus Gambit from now on. The DM in the mini-scenario I just described deployed the Nicobobinus Gambit as an emergency measure. (It was an Emergency Nicobobinus Gambit, if you will.) But it is entirely possible to use the Gambit in a pre-planned way. The most obvious example I can think of is that DM beginning his campaign by sitting down the players and asking them, "So, where is your PC from? Make something up."

Tuesday, 15 October 2019

Are We Stupider or More Discerning?

Layout has moved on a lot. Take a look at these spreads:

The first is from Cyberspace, the little-mentioned ICE cyberpunk Rolemaster variant from 1989. The second is from Judge Dredd: The Roleplaying Game, from 1985, by Games Workshop (and authored by Rick Priestley and Marc Gascoigne, no less).

Notice anything? Christ, that's a lot of text, isn't it? And, to the modern eye, isn't it presented in an almost aggressively unapproachable way? It's not just boring. It's also unintuitive - to get the hang of the rules you would have to devote careful study, almost as a separate project, making your own notes and staying up all night to revise before each session. They look like law textbooks with a few more interesting pictures.

I got these two games, along with quite a few others, secondhand over the course of a number of years from various physical shops, with the idea of reviewing them for the blog. (These two cost £3 and £5 respectively, since you're asking.) But each time I have sat down to begin this task, I have failed miserably. I just can't be bothered. Whatever initial enthusiasm I have drains out of me like air from a rapidly deflating bouncy castle, leaving me a flacid floppy mound of rubber - the party long gone and not even a doggy bag left.

What's wrong with me? At the age of 14 I would have lapped all this stuff up. The impenetrability wouldn't have bothered me one jot. Partly this is age, and lack of time, and better things to do, and fewer brain cells. But also I think it's because when I was 14 basically all RPG books looked pretty much like this (the text might have had nicer backgrounds in the mid-90s and the internal illos were usually in colour by then, but that's about all that would have changed). And I hadn't experienced "good" information design - I hadn't grown up in a world in which you had to do anything other than just sit down and digest a massive shitload of infodump text if you wanted to know how to play an RPG. I hadn't been molly-coddled, in other words. I was a better and more focused reader.

All of that is to ask: am I just old and stupid now? Or is it the case that getting used to information being presented in an accessible format has made me less able to actually just sit down and do some proper reading and retain the information I've read?

Saturday, 12 October 2019

Ex-Pat Rogues

For the first time in quite a while I heard Warren Zevon's "Lawyers, Guns and Money" today. This song speaks to ex-pats, or people who have been ex-pats, quite profoundly. This is because it manages in its light-hearted way to communicate two indelible truths that anybody who has lived in a foreign country will know. First, when you are a foreigner you have license to live outside conventional social mores, which is very enjoyable. But second, and because of this, it's easy to get into crazy hijinks, and when you do, you might get into "shit hitting the fan" territory very quickly - indeed before you even know it.

Ex-pats (and here I am talking really about young ex-pats, and mostly male ones) are basically D&D PCs. They generally have no family or responsibilities in the country in which they live; they usually have a fairly high disposable income because they have no real financial commitments beyond paying rent; they are treated as exotic outsiders by the mainstream culture; and they often also have the unconscious arrogance that comes from being "young, dumb and full of cum" in an exciting location far from home. The sense of freedom one gets is intoxicating. Everything feels like an adventure.

While they might not be going around slaying orcs and pillaging dragons' treasure hordes, they do find themselves getting into all manner of scrapes, both good and bad. I moved to Japan when I was 21 1/2. Before I was 22 I had broken my toes diving off a sea cliff, had numerous fights, dated and broken up with a stripper, befriended a Peruvian drug dealer, fallen asleep on at least three or four 5am trains after nights out on a Sunday mornings and woken up at strange railway stations with no idea how to get home, had flings with several married women, and imbibed about three times more alcohol than I had in my entire life prior to that point.

And I was by far and away the most sensible of my friends. One of my housemates was robbed of all his possessions by associates of said Peruvian drug dealer after a party; another fled Japan for Australia after having apparently taken something or other that disagreed with him and descending into serious paranoid delusions about being pursued everywhere by an old woman on a bike with a camera. I knew a number of people who did prison time for various offences concerning drug possession, theft and/or violence, several of whom were subsequently deported. Like me, I am sure that they all left their home countries as sensible young men imbued only with a spirit of adventure.* Being at large in foreign climes with no roots or ties or social constraints turned them into rogues. Not quite murderhoboes. But possibly getting there.

I would not like to go back to those days. But I would like to run a sort of ur-cyberpunk campaign set among petty ex-pat criminals in an exotic location. Picture it as an Elmore Leonard novel taking place in a non-existent simulacrum of a Havana, Shanghai, Zanzibar or Adelaide, but with cyberarms and Johnny Silverhand songs on the radio. That I could get behind.


*That's not to mention the people who go to live overseas because they are fleeing the law in their home country, quite a number of whom I have met, nor those who are just crazy, weird, or psychopathic to begin with; it's possible of course that I fall into that latter category somewhere without me knowing it.

Tuesday, 8 October 2019

Don't Fall in Love

Thomas Harris's Hannibal Lecter novels are a case study in what goes wrong when a creator falls in love with a main character. In Red Dragon, Lecter is a sinister and inexplicably malicious psychopath who seems to be a minor plot point until he becomes the joker in the pack right at the end. His presence is a tour de force. In The Silence of the Lambs, he is a mysterious and compelling anti-hero, brilliantly rendered. But something happened to Harris in the course of writing that book. He started to get carried away with this Hannibal Lecter fellow. By the time Hannibal is completed Lecter is practically a demigod and his every word and action has turned into high camp. He's impossible to take seriously. With Hannibal Rising we get a descent into farce with a laughable origin story complete with Nazis (of course), a ludicrous, sexy suicidal Japanese femme fatale, and, well, an explanation for Lecter's descent into psychopathy that it is charitable to describe as implausible.

Harris's love for Lecter became his downfall. Not in terms of his bank balance, I'm sure. But as a serious author his reputation is forever shot.

Something similar happened to George Lucas. George just couldn't let Darth Vader be. Pause at the end of The Return of the Jedi and we have a highly satisfying resolution of that character's "arc", as I believe the cool kids call it nowadays (and of the entire trilogy itself for that matter). But George was a fool in love. He couldn't leave well alone. Like an over-eager suitor, he came on too strong. Incapable of having a good first date and then giving the girl some space, he had to call. And call. And call. The inevitable result then followed. 

Origin stories are bad news. They sell tickets. But they disappoint. There was never any way for Harris to provide a reason for Lecter being what he is which would have been anything other than an anticlimax. It's the same with Darth Vader: no explanation for why Anakin turned to the dark side could possibly have matched the audience's expectations. Not because the audience would have had a good explanation themselves - it's not that good characters are mysteries who call on the viewer or reader to try to fill in the blanks. It's that good characters are mysterious in such a way that their "blanks" appear so deep, complex or terrifying that their existence alone is a thrill. We didn't like the Hannibal Lecter of Red Dragon or The Silence of the Lambs because we wanted to speculate about what turned him into a cannibalistic serial killer. We liked him because he appeared to us to be inexplicable, and thus made us shiver deliciously at the prospect that evil is out there and cannot possibly be rendered banal by being understood.